O'Shea, of the Auckland University of Technology, donated the giant squid, which had been found washed up on a New Zealand beach in 2004, to the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany. The institute is led by anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who invented the preservation process.
The result of two years' work, 12 plastination technicians' efforts, and 396 gallons (1,500 liters) of silicone, a 16-foot-long (5-meter) preserved giant squid—one of two recently plastinated—is shown in a double exposure.
On one side (bottom), the squid has been cross-sectioned, revealing the inner structure and organs usually hidden by the mantle.
"Knowing the condition they were in when I sent them to [plastination pioneer Gunther von Hagens], this is fantastic reconstructive surgery," squid expert Steve O'Shea said. "This guy is an artist."
Giant squid grow to a length of about 33 feet (10 meters) and are only rarely encountered live. More than 130 have been recovered, mainly from fishing nets and beach strandings, around the coast of New Zealand.
After dissection, one of the giant squid awaits the start of the plastination process, which took 260 hours for both specimens.
Next, acetone, the solvent used on nail polish remover, will be injected to dissolve remaining materials such as soluble fats, which will then be vacuumed out. The resulting cavities will be filled with silicone.
Plastination has preserved the inner secrets of giraffes, horses, and people. But the giant squid, which contain huge amounts of water, posed a huge challenge.
The creature's easily damaged skin demanded that body fluids be replaced with silicone at a much slower rate. Furthermore, maintaining a lifelike posture with no skeleton to support it demanded all of von Hagens's skills—as did the creatures' complex eyes, notoriously difficult organs to preserve.
The result, said squid expert Steve O'Shea, "is as much art as it is science."
Photograph courtesy Auckland University of Technology
Hold That Pose
Positioning the giant squid was the most delicate part of the preservation process. Placement and removal of the needles had to be done with utmost care to avoid damaging the creatures' soft skin.
Later, on seeing the finished product, squid expert Steve O'Shea said the plastination success opened up all sorts of possibilities. For one thing, "we could plasticise a sperm whale," he said, "and display these two mortal enemies in combat."